Shadrach Minkins

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On February 15, 1851, Shadrach Minkins was serving breakfast at a coffeehouse in Boston when history caught up with him. The first runaway to be arrested in New England under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, this illiterate black man from Virginia found himself the catalyst of one of the most dramatic episodes of rebellion and legal wrangling before the Civil War. In a remarkable effort of historical sleuthing, Gary Collison has recovered the true story of Shadrach Minkins' life and times and perilous flight. His book restores an extraordinary chapter to our collective history and at the same time offers a rare and engrossing picture of the life of an ordinary black man in nineteenth-century North America.

As Minkins' journey from slavery to freedom unfolds, we see what day-to-day life was like for a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, for a fugitive in Boston, and for a free black man in Montreal. Collison recreates the drama of Minkins' arrest and his subsequent rescue by a band of black Bostonians, who spirited the fugitive to freedom in Canada. He shows us Boston's black community, moved to panic and action by the Fugitive Slave Law, and the previously unknown community established in Montreal by Minkins and other refugee blacks from the United States. And behind the scenes, orchestrating events from the disastrous Compromise of 1850 through the arrest of Minkins and the trial of his rescuers, is Daniel Webster, who through the exigencies of his dimming political career, took the role of villain.

Webster is just one of the familiar figures in this tale of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Others, such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (who made use of Minkins' Montreal community in Uncle Tom's Cabin), also appear throughout the narrative. Minkins' intriguing story stands as a fascinating commentary on the nation's troubled times--on urban slavery and Boston abolitionism, on the Underground Railroad, and on one of the federal government's last desperate attempts to hold the Union together.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times - Richard Bernstein
Gary Collison must have spent a lot of time digging into the historical records to reconstruct the life of Shadrach Minkins, an obscure figure but an important one in the tormented middle years of the American 19th century...[It] is a careful, workmanlike piece of historical rescue, one that brings to light the facts of a fascinating American life. Mr. Collison' does not read like the usual academic tome. He concentrates not on theory or interpretation but on the remarkable story he has to tell. Along the way, he draws an illuminating portrait of black life in three cities...He describes the activities of fugitives and would-be fugitives, their encounters with racism and with the kindness of antislavery strangers as well as with slave-catchers, abolitionist lawyers and politicians. Not least, he charts a subtle map of race relations, of the various ways that blacks were perceived and received by the different white communities they encountered.
Washington Post - Stuart Seely Sprague
Through obsessive sleuthing, the author...has brilliantly brought Minkins back to life. Collison began with little more than the records of the case and contemporary newspaper accounts. He mastered the literature of slavery and the histories of the three cities in which Minkins lived...[A] full-blown biography of an ordinary African American man or woman is a rarity. Only an exceptional author would dare take on such a daunting task, and Shadrach Minkins has been well served by his biographer.
Times Literary Supplement - Abdulrazak Gurnah
[Collison's book] is a story told wonderfully well...[and] a triumph of research and persistence.
American Studies in Europe [UK] - Janice Burrow
[Shadrach Minkinsis] packed with detail about life in 19th century America. Statistics dominate, with a multitude of facts and figures supplied in the course of the book...The enthusiasm of the author and his clear writing style ensure this is an easily readable and engrossing story. Collison moves skillfully between close detail of Minkins's escape and the broader picture of African American life in America and Canada and as he does so the reader is infected with Collison's enthusiasm and interest.
Boston Sunday Globe - Wil Haygood
Gary Collison...has combed archives and old newspaper clippings for details of [this] little-known incident. His story sweeps in such familiar characters as Daniel Webster and Frederick Douglass, along with the forgotten or anonymous black Bostonians who saved Shadrach Minkins, all of them caught in the swirling currents of Boston's anti-slavery movement...[I]t is hard not to get caught up in this improbable saga.
American Literature - Leonard Cassuto
Collison [is a] diligent historian and resourceful storyteller, and from a few archival threads...has embroidered an elaborate contextual cloth...Though driven by the biographical impulse, Shadrach Minkins [is] judged as [an] archival slice of American life during a most troubled time.
New England Quarterly - Julia Winch
What Gary Collison has done is to rescue Shadrach Minkins anew, to transform him from a historical footnote to an individual with a story worth telling...Shadrach Minkins is a remarkable book. Collison has mined the sources available to him in the United States and Canada to write a compelling biography of an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary events.
Richmond Times-Dispatch - John M. Coski
[T]his is a first-rate historical detective story and a rich portrait of black life in three cities. What Collison was able to learn about Shadrach Minkins is impressive...In the course of following Minkins' shadow through wills, census and tax records, legal documents, newspapers, memoirs, and even oral tradition, Collison relates much about slave life in antebellum Norfolk, the operation of the so-called Underground Railroad, the politics surrounding the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and its varied reception in the North, the black abolitionists of Boston, and the community of African-American emigres in Montreal.
Raleigh News & Observer - J. Peder Zane
[A] terrific new book...This obscure story of the first slave arrested in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 crackles with historical parallels.
Dallas Morning News
Shadrach Minkins was the first runaway slave to be arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Gary Collison traces the life of this rather ordinary individual--who was rescued from the courthouse by a band of Boston black men shortly after his arrest and then disappeared--from this early years as a slave in Virginia to his career as a free man in Montreal. Part history, part detective story, this outstanding portrait of black life in 19th-century America is now available in paperback form; it would be a bargain at any price.
Newport News Daily Press - Paula Barnes
Because of [Collison's] painstaking work, a life has been rescued from obscurity, and a small piece of American as well as African-American history has been resurrected.
The Virginian-Pilot - George Holbert Tucker
In telling Minkins' story, Collison has drawn on little known sources of Norfolk and national African-American history. As a consequence, a careful reading of his text and particularly the copious notes that he has appended to each chapter will provide any serious student of American history with fascinating offbeat insights that have formerly been unavailable.
Canadian Historical Review - Karolyn Smardz Frost
[Collison] has painted for us a fascinating portrait of African American life in slavery and freedom at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law...This book will be useful not only to the average reader interested in fugitive slave accounts but also to researchers seeking new avenues of information for African American and African Canadian history. It is entertaining and well written, demonstrating how thorough research, coupled with an author's deep personal interest in the subject, can combine to make a scholarly history book that is also a good read.
Georgia Historical Quarterly - Larry Gara
This is a remarkable book. To write a biography of an illiterate man, born in slavery, who successfully escaped and left virtually no paper trail of his life is no mean task. Yet Gary Collison did exactly that. The author's scholarly training in literary criticism enabled him to fill in the blanks without distorting the subject matter. Indeed, the book is more than a biography. It is a carefully researched account of the environment and experiences of those fugitive slaves who found their way to Canada. It is based on large amounts of original material, including census reports, newspaper accounts, county records and manuscripts, as well as scholarly secondary sources...Collison has succeeded in telling a story that is both fascinating and authentic. By avoiding myths and unverifiable stories he contributes a plausible addition to the historical picture while telling the story of Shadrach Minkins.
Reviews in American History - Colin A. Palmer
An absorbing account of one man's escape from slavery in Virginia, his precarious freedom in Boston, his recapture by slave catchers and his extraordinary rescue and flight to Montreal. This is historical detective work at its best, gripping and dramatic. This masterly study by an English professor pieces together the splinters of Shadrach Minkins' life, crafting an intensely human portrait of one man's efforts to claim his freedom and himself. This powerful a signifier of an entire people's travail in this nation, their challenges to end an oppressive social system, and their uncertain place in the land of their birth...Collison's compelling narrative situates Minkins' odyssey within the context of the abolitionist movement and the larger political currents in the nation....The result is a major contribution to the history of black resistance, unembroidered and free of romantic condescension.
[Collison] has pieced together scattered fragments of evidence to add depth to our understanding of Minkins himself and the black (and white) communities he lived in, first in Norfolk, Virginia, then Boston, and finally Montreal. Minkins' escape was more than a challenge to the Southerner who 'owned' him; it threatened leaders like presidential aspirant Daniel Webster, whose carefully constructed Compromise of 1850 held the Union together by conceding--and providing federal government support for--slaveholders' 'property' rights. Shadrach Minkins is a vivid re-creation of a little-known 1851 incident that sheds light on larger issues.
William S. McFeely
From the scantiest of records, Gary Collison has imagined the life of Shadrach Minkins. He has painted a richly textured portrait of the African-American communities in each of the three cities in which Minkins lived...A first-class adventure story.
Barbara L. Bellows
Minkins was a man who, acting initially on his own, was swept up in events not of his own making. A pawn, in some sense, of the white abolitionists among whom he enjoyed some celebrity, a member of Boston's black fugitive underground, and a participant in the refugee culture of Montreal, where he learned the lessons of free agency, Shadrach moved into the semiprofessional class, married, had a family, and lived out his days without notable incident and died without returning to the country of his birth. Finally, after more than a century of obscurity, the story of Shadrach will gain some of the attention it deserves.
David Blight
This book will rescue Shadrach Minkins once again from obscurity. Different readers will find varying ways to connect with this book. Some will value the research above all else; it is a remarkable piece of historical detective work. Some will find the whole story of fugitive slaves and abolitionism demystified and recreated. Some may find even further stimulus to the study of black identity formation in the nineteenth century. Finally, some may simply find a good read, especially about the drama of the rescue and escape to Canada. Collison has found and reimagined Shadrach.
Abdulrazak Gumah
[Collison's book] s a story told wonderfully well. . . [and] a triumph of research and persistence. -- Times Literary Supplement
Library Journal
Collison (English, Pennsylvania State Univ.) offers an interesting account of the life of a slave who ran away to Boston in search of freedom and was then entrapped by the Compromise of 1850. The author provides insight into the day-to-day life of a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, as a fugitive in Boston, and, finally, as a citizen in Montreal, Canada. While Minkins himself left no account, Collison bases his work on records relating to his subject and his movements. The author conveys the political ramifications of the Fugitive Slave Law and the reactions of the black community of Boston, the abolitionists of New England, and individual slaves to the problems of returning runaway slaves to the South. Collison's work should be required reading for anyone interested in African American history, especially during Black History month.-W. Walter Wicker, Louisiana Technological Univ., Ruston
Kirkus Reviews
A lively and engaging account of a fugitive slave that also offers a glimpse into the painstaking process of historical inquiry.

Collison (English/Pennsylvania State Univ.) here assembles a life, almost as though it were a jigsaw puzzle, with the barest of information: a few census reports, a will, an auctioneer's advertisement, some newspaper articles. Although Shadrach Minkins was something of a celebrity in his lifetime, almost no trace of him remains for the historian today. Because he was born a slave in Norfolk, Va., in the early 19th century, Minkins's birth and early life are recorded only inasmuch as they related to the holding or transfer of property. And when he escaped to Boston in 1850, had he not been considered valuable property, Minkins could have easily disappeared. But he was pursued by an agent of his master and arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. He was taken to trial and thought doomed by his lawyers until a mob of Boston's black citizens burst into the courtroom, lifted up the startled Minkins, and spirited him out of the city. He arrived soon after in Montreal, where he remained for the rest of his life. Unlike other fugitive slaves who wrote narratives of their adventures, Minkins was illiterate. So Collison had little to work with beyond the highly suspect newspaper accounts of Minkins's rescue (the number of the rescuing mob was variously reported as 100, 200, 300, and 500, although the actual number was probably closer to 20) and his unusual first name, Shadrach. It was because of this name that Collison discovered Minkins in a Montreal census, even though his surname had been misrecorded as Nichols, and was able to reconstruct the final portion of this unique life.

Atmospheric, highly readable, and instructive; this is first-rate history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674802995
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 10/15/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 308
  • Product dimensions: 0.64 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Collison is Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1
1. "Han't Got No Self" 9
2. "Horses and Men, Cattle and Women, Pigs and Children" 23
3. "The Silver Trump of Freedom" 39
4. "Cradle of Liberty"? 61
5. "A New Reign of Terror" 75
6. "Much Excitement Prevails" 91
7. "A Thing ... or a Man?" 110
8. "Plucked as a Brand from the Burning" 124
9. "Never Was a Darker Day" 134
10. North Star 151
11. "Please to Remember Me Kindly" 169
12. A Home Far Away 184
13. "Free at Last! Free at Last!" 203
Epilogue 217
Militia Petition by Black Residents of Montreal 227
Notes 229
Acknowledgments 279
Index 283
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